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Sortition in Canada: A New Dawn for Democracy?

Sortition, the practice of selecting political officials through a lottery system rather than by election, traces its roots back to ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy. It was designed to prevent corruption and promote equal representation.

Sortition, the practice of selecting political officials through a lottery system rather than by election, traces its roots back to ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy. It was designed to prevent corruption and promote equal representation.

In early 2022, the streets of Ottawa became the epicentre of a national debate, as the “Freedom Convoy” occupied the city’s core. Initially organized to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates for cross-border truck drivers, this convoy quickly evolved into a broader movement encompassing various grievances against the federal government. The weeks-long demonstration, marked by a sea of trucks and a palpable sense of discontent, brought the city to a standstill and captured the nation’s attention.

One could imagine that among the observers was Aisha, a local small business owner whose café windows looked out onto the throngs of protesters. She might have reflected on the unfolding events: “This isn’t just about truckers or mandates. It’s about people feeling unheard and unrepresented by those in power.” Her sentiment echoed a deeper issue within Canadian politics – a growing disconnect between elected officials and the electorate.

The “Freedom Convoy” catalyzed a wider discussion on political representation in Canada. While the protest was polarizing, it highlighted a common feeling among many Canadians: the need for a political system more attuned to its citizens’ diverse voices and concerns. This pivotal moment in Ottawa sparked my renewed interest in alternative forms of governance, such as sortition, to bridge the gap between the government and the governed.

Sortition: An Ancient Idea for a Modern Problem

Sortition, the practice of selecting political officials through a lottery system rather than by election, traces its roots back to ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy. It was designed to prevent corruption and promote equal representation. In today’s context, sortition could offer a fresh perspective on governance, countering the entrenched interests often seen in electoral politics.

Implementing Sortition in Canada

The implementation of sortition in Canada could take various forms. One approach is the creation of a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’, where randomly selected citizens deliberate and make recommendations on specific issues. Ireland’s successful use of a Citizens’ Assembly to address complex issues like abortion and climate change serves as a compelling precedent.

Potential Benefits

  1. Enhanced Representation: Sortition can potentially lead to more demographically representative political bodies. According to a study by Carson and Martin (1999), sortition can be an effective tool to ensure that decision-making groups reflect the diversity of the larger population. This is particularly important in addressing issues like gender and minority representation. The authors argue that random selection bypasses the biases often present in electoral politics, which tend to favor certain demographics over others. The diversity in a randomly selected group contributes to a range of perspectives, which is crucial for inclusive and balanced decision-making (Carson, L., & Martin, B. (1999). Random Selection in Politics. Praeger).
  2. Reduction in Corruption: The use of sortition can also contribute to reducing corruption and undue influence in politics. A report by the newDemocracy Foundation (2010) suggests that randomly selected citizen bodies are less susceptible to lobbying and other forms of external influence. This is because their members do not rely on political donations or need to campaign for re-election, which often makes elected officials vulnerable to lobbying and corruption. The foundation’s research indicates that citizen panels or assemblies selected through sortition base their decisions on information and deliberation rather than political pressure, leading to more integrity-driven governance (newDemocracy Foundation. (2010). About Sortition. newDemocracy Research & Development).
  3. Increased Public Trust: Implementing sortition can enhance public trust in the political process. According to Gastil and Wright (2019), when ordinary citizens see that political decisions are being made by a group that could easily include someone like themselves, they tend to have more faith in the decision-making process. This is because sortition removes many of the biases and self-interests inherent in electoral politics. The authors note that the perceived fairness of the sortition process and the representativeness of the decision-making body can increase public confidence in the outcomes (Gastil, J., & Wright, E. O. (2019). Legislature by Lot: Transformative Designs for Deliberative Governance. Verso Books).

Challenges and Considerations

One significant challenge of sortition is ensuring the competence and informed decision-making of randomly selected citizens. According to a study by Gastil and Wright (2019), while sortition brings diverse voices into governance, it also raises concerns about the political knowledge and expertise of participants. They argue that effective sortition requires robust civic education and support structures to enable participants to make informed decisions. This might include expert testimony, balanced information briefings, and facilitation of deliberative discussions (Gastil, J., & Wright, E. O. (2019). Legislature by Lot: Transformative Designs for Deliberative Governance. Verso Books).

Another consideration is the integration of sortition within existing political systems. As Sutherland (2008) points out, sortition must be carefully designed to complement, rather than undermine, current democratic structures. This involves addressing how sortition-based bodies will interact with elected representatives and existing institutions. Sutherland highlights the importance of clear mandates and procedures to ensure that the contributions of citizen bodies are effectively integrated into the political process (Sutherland, K. (2008). The Party’s Over: Blueprint for a Very English Revolution. Imprint Academic).

Furthermore, the challenge of public acceptance cannot be overlooked. A report by the newDemocracy Foundation (2010) emphasizes that for sortition to be successful, it must be embraced by the public. This requires extensive public education and communication strategies to build understanding and trust in the process. The foundation’s research suggests that gradual implementation and demonstration of sortition’s effectiveness in smaller-scale or local initiatives can be crucial in gaining broader public support (newDemocracy Foundation. (2010). About Sortition. newDemocracy Research & Development).

Global Case Studies

Different countries have implemented this system and the outcomes they have observed:

  1. BELGIUM – The Ostbelgien Model: In the German-speaking community of Belgium, the Ostbelgien model represents a pioneering approach to integrating sortition into the legislative process. Established in 2019, this model features a permanent Citizens’ Council, randomly selected, with the authority to set the agenda for Citizens’ Assemblies, which also comprise randomly chosen citizens. These assemblies deliberate on specific issues and make recommendations to the Parliament. Vandamme et al. (2020) have analyzed this model, noting its potential to enhance democratic legitimacy and responsiveness. They highlight the Ostbelgien model as a significant innovation in democratic practice, demonstrating how sortition can be institutionalized within a parliamentary system (Vandamme, R., Verret-Hamelin, A., Pilet, J.-B., & Reuchamps, M. (2020). The Ostbelgien Model: A Pioneer of Democratic Innovation. In Gastil, J., & Wright, E. O. (Eds.), Legislature by Lot. Verso Books).
  2. IRELAND – Citizens’ Assemblies: Ireland has utilized Citizens’ Assemblies to address complex and contentious issues like abortion and climate change. These assemblies are composed of randomly selected citizens who are tasked with reviewing evidence, discussing the issues, and making recommendations. Farrell et al. (2019) explored the impact of the Irish Citizens’ Assemblies, particularly the one on abortion, which played a pivotal role in shaping the national referendum on the issue. The study concludes that the assemblies enhanced the quality of public deliberation and informed democratic decision-making in Ireland, providing a model for other countries considering sortition-based approaches to governance (Farrell, D. M., Suiter, J., & Harris, C. (2019). [HIS TITLE] The Irish Citizens’ Assembly on Abortion: What Lessons for Deliberative Democracy? Policy & Politics).
    [WHAT I FOUND ONLINE] Reimagining Democracy: Lessons in Deliberative Democracy from the Irish Front Line).
  3. MONGOLIA – Local Governance: Mongolia has experimented with sortition at the local governance level. The country has employed random selection to form Citizen Halls in several municipalities. These halls consist of randomly selected local residents who review municipal policies and budgets. According to a report by the Asia Foundation (2016), this approach has been successful in increasing transparency and citizen participation in local governance. The report highlights how sortition in Mongolia has provided a platform for ordinary citizens to influence policy decisions directly, thereby enhancing democratic engagement at the grassroots level (The Asia Foundation. (2016). Mongolia: Enhancing Citizen Participation in Local Governance through Sortition. Asia Foundation Reports).

These case studies from Belgium, Ireland, and Mongolia offer valuable insights into the practical application of sortition in different political and cultural contexts. They demonstrate how sortition can be adapted to suit various governance needs and highlight its potential to enhance democratic processes worldwide.

Conclusion: A Step Towards Renewed Democracy

As Canada grapples with the limitations of its current democratic system, sortition offers a promising alternative. By embracing this ancient yet innovative approach, Canada could set a global example in democratic renewal, making politics truly by the people, for the people.